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Book Review

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Adoor: the man and the auteur


ADOOR GOPALAKRISHNAN - A Life in Cinema: Gautaman Bhaskaran; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 599.

Books on Indian auteurs are few and far between. This is especially true of the regional language cinema. There are more books — hagiographies, to be precise — on stars than on directors. It is indeed surprising that in India, a country that produces the largest number of films in the world, cinema is not considered an area worthy of being a part of national ‘history' or ‘culture'. This apathy is reflected even in the matter of archival imagination and priorities too.

Given this context, Gautaman Bhaskaran's biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a welcome and laudable effort and the book fills a vital gap in literature on Indian cinema. The author adopts a linear and chronological approach to his subject. Adoor's childhood, family background, early attempts at writing, his days at the FTII in Pune, and the trials and tribulations he went through initially in film-making are narrated in the first part of the book. The second part deals with the 11 feature films he made between 1972 ( Swayamvaram) and 2008 ( Oru Pennum Randanum), one chapter devoted to each film.

Woven into this framework are snippets about the auteur's personal experiences, working methods, his curious chemistry with his technicians and actors, and incidents relating to the release of films locally and at international festivals. Overall, Bhaskaran has tried to strike a balance between the personal and the creative, the man and the auteur, finding continuities and motifs that run through Adoor's life and work.


While the first part, as Adoor mentions in the foreword, is based on conversation with him, the second gives “vital information about the making of each film along with some important details.” Whether it is tracing Adoor's eventful journey in film-making or providing insights into the different phases a film goes through — right from the conception stage to the screening of the film and to the way it is received by the target audience — the book has been a successful effort.

A major limitation, however, is the inconsistent writing style, which veers between the scholarly and the journalistic. From perceptive observations about a film or scene, the text suddenly digresses into some mundane, although related, detail, thus disrupting the flow as well as the excitement of ideation. The author quotes copiously from various sources, but has failed to provide a bibliography.


There are places where the biographer reels off details that do not jell with the immediate or thematic concerns of the text — for instance, where he talks about the choice of Mammooty to play the lead role in Mathilukal. “To play someone when he is living is no mean challenge, and the Malayalam star rose up to it”, he says. This is immediately followed by a para that speaks of squirrels throwing tantrums and needing “much coaxing, much cajoling and many takes” before they “put their tails up to perform.” And the para ends thus: “Unaccepted and isolated, the Mathilukal squirrels faced hostility and death from crows that seemed to have taken a cue or two from Hitchcock's Birds, though they attacked rodents not humans.”

Again, while discussing Adoor's Nizhalkuthu, the author suddenly digresses into an opinion-editorial he wrote for The Japan Times about capital punishment — a piece written five years after the film and has nothing to do with the film per se. The comparison Bhaskaran has drawn between Swayamvaram and Dogme 95 movement and its Vow of Chastity is far-fetched. In fact, while the former draws its strength and beauty from the real lack of resources, the latter is a self-enforced vow, that too in the European context of excess.

Perhaps, these are hazards that await a journalist venturing into biography-writing. However, there is little doubt that the book offers a concise yet comprehensive introduction to the oeuvre of Adoor and is written in a manner that is capable of evoking the interest of a cinephile in his works. It will also be useful to any researcher on Adoor films or Malayalam cinema.

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